How to identify common caterpillars

Here are 12 common UK species for you to look for with typical foodplants. Lengths quoted are maximum sizes of fully grown larvae.

Large white butterfly

                                                                            Illustrations by Felicity Rose Cole             


Large white Pieris brassicae (above) 

45mm. Clusters on cabbages, lettuces and nasturtiums. Bright spotted body warns of foul taste

Found March and October but are most common in July and August. Adults active between April and September.



2 Small tortoiseshell Aglais urticae

30mm. Clusters in a silk web on nettles until nearly fully grown; crawls away separately to pupate.

Can be seen from May to June with adults potentially being active all year.



3 Comma Polygonia c-album

35mm. On hops and stinging nettles; hatchlings resemble bird droppings, soon developing white ‘saddle’ mark.

Seen from late April to mid-September. Butterflies active all year round.



4 Cinnabar moth Tyria jacobaeae

28mm. On common ragwort, often shredding the plants. ‘Boom and bust’ population fluctuations locally.

Feeding from July to early September. Adults fly from May to early August.



5 Buff-tip moth Phalera bucephala

70mm. On oak leaves. After hatching from egg cluster, larvae feed together, moving off alone when larger.

Found July to early October. Adults are active late May to July.



6 Pale tussock moth Calliteara pudibunda

45mm. On various broadleaved trees and shrubs, including birch and hops; colloquially known as ‘hop dog.’

Seen late June to early October. Adults fly July to August.



7 Sycamore moth Acronicta aceris

40mm. On sycamore, cultivated and field maples, horse chestnut and London plane; an urban species.

Found July to September. Butterflies active mid-June to early August.



8 Vapourer moth Orgyia antiqua

40mm. On most native or cultivated trees or shrubs, including cherry laurel. Bizarre tufts; distasteful.

Found May to early September. Adults fly July to October in the south and September to October in the north.



9 Knot grass moth Acronicta rumicis

40mm. On plants including sorrel, broadleaved dock, mint and bramble. Two generations in southern Britain.

Found June to October. Flying from May to June and August to early September.



10 Grey dagger moth Acronicta psi

40mm. On broadleaved trees and shrubs – hawthorn, apple and birch. Yellow stripe is camouflage on stems.

Seen July to early October. Adults active from Mid-May to August.



11 Dot moth Melanchra persicariae

45mm. On a wide range of herbs and shrubs. Brown or green varieties, always with ‘go-faster’ chevrons.

Found August to October. Adults fly from late June to August.



12 Lime hawkmoth Mimas tiliae

70mm. Mainly on lime, particularly in urban areas; also birch and alder. Bright green to dark greyish-purple.

Seen late June to mid-September. Adults fly May to early June.


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